Lakers’ backs against wall after Thunder hands L.A. sixth straight loss

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“I told the team that the biggest thing is that our season starts Sunday,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after the latest in a parade of losses. “And we have got one run and have one shot at it and they need to get ready mentally and physically.”

That is the sound of a desperate coach. A coach who knows his team needs wins right now, needs to win two-thirds of its games from here on out to have a chance of even making the playoffs.

Lakers fans have been mentally in that desperate space for a while now, but it felt and sounded like the Lakers team is finally getting there after getting thumped 116-101 by a genuine contender in the Oklahoma City Thunder Friday night. Kevin Durant had a season high 42 points. Russell Westbrook had 27 points and 10 assists. Oklahoma defended, ran the break, executed with crispness, and basically did whatever they wanted. Oklahoma City was up 16 at halftime and the game felt like glorified garbage time in the second half.

The Lakers have plenty of excuses — they were without Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol again in this game, plus now comes the news Jordan Hill will be out for the season with hip surgery. Westbrook’s eyes lit up when asked what it was like to turn the corner and not see the Lakers’ seven-footers protecting the rim, but he caught himself and just said it was “different.”

“It’s true, but people aren’t going to remember all the excuses of the season,” said Kobe Bryant, who finished with 28 points but on 8-of-23 shooting.

The Lakers have had injury excuses all season but the fact is with this loss they fall to 15-21. They will need to go better than 30-16 the rest of the way to make the playoffs (that record would get them to 45 wins, which is the lowest number the West’s eighth seed has had in five years). And remember they still have the Grammy road trip ahead of them.

But more than that, Friday night’s drubbing was evidence of just how far away from a contender the Lakers are right now. And how much better the Thunder are even than last season.

Early on, with fresh legs, the Lakers starters hung around in the game. Then the run everyone knew the Thunder would go on came with a Thabo Sefolosha three and a Durant runner in the lane. Suddenly it was a 9-point OKC lead.

But at the end of the first quarter the Lakers fought back to tie it up with a stretch of good defense — an Antawn Jamison steal under the basket, an Earl Clark block of Serge Ibaka, a Kobe steal. They tied the game at 25.

But the problem for the Lakers all season has been the defense has only been good in stretches. Then it goes away.

It went away in the second quarter — Oklahoma City put up 39 points quarter shooting 70 percent. They got shots in the lane, they were draining threes and most of their shots seem to be open ones created off the dribble or with the extra pass. The Thunder shot 59.1 percent for the first half, were up 16 at the break and the game was all over but the shouting.

Durant was 10-of-15 shooting for 25 points in the first half, and he was fired up. He drove around Earl Clark at one point and just threw down a dunk then displayed the kind of anger we don’t usually see from the NBA’s golden child.

“We moved the ball so well,” Durant said. “We were finding open shots, guys were getting into the lane.”

And when that didn’t work, Durant or Westbrook would just blow by their defender off the dribble. Westbrook in particular looked sharp with his game. And the Lakers lacked any real rim protection to slow them.

“Well they have a good team but like I say you can’t expect to be at your best when you don’t have your best players on the floor,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “There is just no way around that. When you get them back it takes time to gel and get rhythm and chemistry.”

The Lakers just don’t have that time anymore. And they know it.

Whether they can do anything about it remains to be seen.

Michael Jordan will still have input on Hornets draft day decisions

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan hired proven general manager Mitch Kupchak this offseason to help turn around a franchise mired in mediocrity since he became the Charlotte Hornets’ majority owner eight years ago.

But that doesn’t mean the highly competitive Jordan won’t have input on personnel decisions, beginning with the NBA draft on Thursday night.

Kupchak said in a pre-draft news conference Tuesday that he’ll have final say in who the Hornets select before quickly adding, “well, with the exception of one person – and obviously that’s ownership.”

Kupchak has won 10 NBA championships, including seven as an executive with the Los Angeles Lakers – so he knows a thing or two about building a winning roster. But he’s quickly learning that Jordan, who many consider the best NBA player ever, is still very much a hands-on owner when it comes to the players he employs.

And Kupchak understands that.

“There is a huge business component to our relationship,” Kupchak said.

Kupchak said he has communicated with Jordan on the phone and via text throughout the draft evaluation process. The 55-year-old Jordan arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina on Monday and the two have been studying tape on potential draft picks since.

The Hornets, who have failed to make the playoffs three of the past four seasons, have the 11th overall pick in the draft.

Kupchak has known Jordan since he was a freshman at the University of North Carolina.

However, Kupchak said that while they both are former Tar Heels, he never had considered Jordan a friend prior to being hired this past offseason to replace Rich Cho as Hornets general manager.

Since then they have had dinner together and gotten to know each other a little more.

He said the relationship has changed for the better.

“Hopefully when all is said and done, our other relationship, which is our friend relationship continues to grow and is not altered in any way,” Kupchak said. “There are no favors being done here. We’re friends and I think we’ll remain friends, but the bottom line in this business is success and winning games.”

Kupchak was rather forthcoming in the team’s pre-draft press conference Tuesday, saying the does not expect to trade the 11th overall pick.

He also said he expects that the handful of top-notch big men will be off the board by the time the Hornets make their selection.

“Right now I think the best player on the board is the player we are going to go after – and I’d expect that player to be a guard or a wing,” Kupchak said. “… I think we expect that we will be looking at guards and wings, but we will see.”

 

Can Lakers form a LeBron/Leonard/George superteam? Technically yes, but…

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Two weeks ago the cry from some corners of the Internet and a lot of talk radio hosts was that superteams were ruining the NBA…

Until they got the chance to talk about a new one being formed.

Last Friday, when Kawhi Leonard’s people leaked that he wanted out of San Antonio (without telling the Spurs first face-to-face, something that still has not happened… real classy), it came with the news his preferred destination was the Lakers. Add that to the fact both LeBron James and Paul George had already been rumored to want to go to Los Angeles and… suddenly the NBA speculation machine was in high gear. People could envision another threat in the West to the Warriors.

The rumors started flying. This is why Magic Johnson was given the reins of Lakers’ basketball, to bring back the days where Lakers’ exceptionalism seemed justified, and if he can pull off getting these three he could bring back the glory days with this one swoop.

Can the Lakers pull this off?

Technically, yes. In fact, you can be sure that people from teams LeBron/Leonard/George are at least discussing how to make it work (through back channels, of course, there is never any tampering in the NBA…).

Is it likely? No. But in a world where Mexico can beat Germany in the World Cup anything is possible. Just don’t bet the rent money on the Lakers here, this is a longshot.

• How the Lakers can pull it off

The Lakers put themselves in position to land two max contract superstars this season with just minimal moves (waiving and stretching Luol Deng and the $36.8 million he is owed over the next two years is a big part of that). That flexibility can be put to use to bring the three stars together.

First, the Lakers trade for Leonard, sending the Spurs some combination of Brandon Ingram/Lonzo Ball/Kyle Kuzma plus some picks and Deng and his contract. I have heard from sources (and others have reported) the Spurs are not particularly interested in Ball as part of this deal, and as a rebuilding team they would not want Deng either. Ingram, Kuzma, Deng and picks (maybe this year’s No. 25, more likely future picks) can work for Leonard and Bryn Forbes. That’s not likely to go down before this Thursday’s Draft, however.

More likely this trade would ultimately involve a third team that would take on Deng (probably and Ball) and send some players/picks back to the Spurs that they find more interesting. There are scenarios where this works out.

Bottom line: The Lakers have the assets and cap space to pull this off — it will gut the roster and leave the Lakers trying to fill out the team around their stars with the taxpayer midlevel ($4.4 million) and minimum contracts, but we know LeBron James can attract veterans to chase a ring with him for less.

What’s more, expect the Lakers to go all in on this — this will not be a half measure. They will exhaust their efforts to see this come about.

• The Biggest Roadblock: The San Antonio Spurs

For this to work, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have to play along.

That could happen, but first the Kawhi Leonard is going to have to sit down across from Popovich and say he wants out. That hasn’t happened, it has just been through social media. (The Spurs think the people around Leonard are trying to get him to a bigger market for branding reasons, that this isn’t fully driven by Leonard himself.) Until it does, the Spurs are still not listening to trade offers.

Also, there are reports that it’s not the Spurs preference to play ball with the Lakers, which is also what I have heard around the league. All things being equal, San Antonio would rather send Leonard to the East, not a team in the West with the resources of the Lakers. Ultimately, however, the Spurs are going to take the trade offer that’s best for them, and if they perceive that to be the Lakers, then they will do it.

(Note: Some Lakers fans seem convinced Spurs have no leverage here, that if Leonard says he will only re-sign with the Lakers that’s the only place they can trade him. Not true. Most importantly, the Spurs care only about the return on the trade not what happens after. Leonard’s threat will scare off some teams that shouldn’t put that many assets into a deal — Sacramento’s rumored interest is a perfect example — but it’s not going to scare off Boston, Philadelphia, or a handful of others who are convinced they could win Leonard over within that first year. They will make the same bet OKC did on George, that they can win him over with their culture/coach/fans/winning, plus he would be able to get $49 million more guaranteed if he re-signed.)

The Spurs will get multiple trade offers. The Lakers offer likely looks something like discussed above: Ingram, Kuzma, picks, and Deng (very possibly with a third team in the mix to take on Deng and other assets the Spurs don’t want, but that team will need a sweetener, too).

Boston’s offer is rumored to be along the lines of Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris (for salary reasons), and Sacramento’s first-round pick in 2019 (only No. 1 pick protected). The Celtics and their wealth of assets could alter this trade in other ways: Sub in Jayson Tatum for Brown (that would mean less valuable picks going to the Spurs), plus they have the Grizzlies 2019 pick (top seven protected) and the Clippers 2019 first round pick (lottery protected), plus their own first rounders and a few second rounders. Boston also could re-sign Marcus Smart and move him in the trade. Danny Ainge has options.

Philadelphia will want to get in on this, too: This year’s No. 10 pick, Markelle Fultz, and Robert Covington would work, and they have their own first-round picks in future years to offer. (While fans seem to have given up, some teams believe Fultz could still be developed into what was expected of the former No. 1 pick.) However, after this draft the deal gets harder for the Sixers unless the Spurs love Fultz.

For the Spurs, it may well simply come down to this: How do they internally rate Ingram vs. Brown/Tatum (and picks) vs. Fultz? If they have a strong preference toward one of those players over the others, or the potential of the picks offered, they will lean that direction.

• What if the Spurs decide to take their time?

Right now, the Spurs are still not listening to trade offers, wanting to sit down with Leonard. While ultimately that may not change the situation, the Spurs are not an organization that gets rushed into things they don’t want to do. Reports are (and again, sources have confirmed this to me) that the Spurs are not going to hurry this decision on when and where to trade Leonard. They are willing to drag it out deep into the summer or even into next season if they don’t like the offers presented.

The longer this goes on, the harder it is on the Lakers to pull together this super team.

On July 1, the Oklahoma City Thunder will put a max five-year, $176 million extension on the table in front of Paul George. Reports are he’s leaning toward taking it — or, more likely, taking a shorter, one-plus-one or two-plus-one contract where he is a free agent again in a year or two — but the idea of going to Los Angeles to play with LeBron and Leonard will give him pause on signing that deal. He will wait to see how it shakes out… for a little while. How long is the question?

LeBron is in the same boat. Starting July 1 he will meet with multiple teams and field multiple max offers, from the Lakers and others. He may want to form a three-player super-team in Los Angeles, but would he come to L.A. without Leonard? If the Spurs sit on their hands early in free agency, how does that impact LeBron’s decision making process?

Even the Lakers are on the hook here — other teams are going to come hard at restricted free agent Julius Randle. Los Angeles would like to keep him after Randle’s leap forward on the offensive end last season. Randle can sign an offer with another team on July 6 and the 72-hour clock is on the Lakers — match it and they can’t bring together this big three.

• Other things that could mess the Lakers up

• The biggest is one mentioned before: Paul George agrees to take OKC’s $176 million on July 1 and it’s done. Or, more likely, George agrees to a shorter deal where he can hit the market (and head to the Lakers or wherever then). George may want to give it a run with the Thunder, and if that doesn’t work consider his options again. If that happens, the Lakers could scramble to try to find another max player to bring in (Chris Paul?) but if PG13 just decides he likes the Thunder and playing with Russell Westbrook, there is nothing Magic Johnson nor LeBron can do about it.

• LeBron James could decide he like’s Chris Paul’s recruitment pitch on Houston and join the Rockets. We’ll know about that one by June 29, the day LeBron has to tell the Cavaliers whether he’s opting into our out of his contract. If he opts in then the trade is worked out in principle (that or he’s staying in Cleveland, but I wouldn’t bet on that one). If LeBron opts out, he’s not going to Houston, it’s just hard to make the math work.

• LeBron decides to stay in the East and signs as a free agent with the Sixers. Philly is going to come hard at him.

Right now, you can be sure that forces are working through back channels to make this new Lakers’ super team happens. Some people want to happen.

But none of those people are in the Spurs organization. Ultimately, they hold the cards on this. And if they don’t want to deal those cards, LeBron, Paul George, and the Lakers will have to find a game elsewhere.

Hawks could turn deep supply of picks into draft-day trade

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ATLANTA (AP) — As the only general manager holding three first-round picks in Thursday night’s NBA draft, including No. 3 overall, Atlanta’s Travis Schlenk has been a popular target for trade talk.

Overall, the Hawks have four picks in the top 34. That’s more than enough depth to attract interest, but the rebuilding Hawks are even more attractive trade targets because they also have about $20 million in salary cap space. That creates more attractive options for a team needing to unload a contract in a trade.

Schlenk says he is answering every call and considering all options – including the possibility of trading up or down from the No. 3 spot.

It’s an exciting time for Schlenk, who never held such a high draft pick in his previous job as assistant GM with the Golden State Warriors.

“This is the highest pick that I’ve been a part of,” Schlenk said last week. “At Golden State, the highest pick we had was six. So it’s exciting. Having the four picks, along with the third pick, we get a lot of phone calls, which is exciting as well, and we’re going to go through all the options that are presented to us and make the best decision, hopefully.”

He says he’s comfortable with the idea of opening the 2018-19 season with four rookies.

Schlenk is planning the Hawks’ future with a new coach. Former Philadelphia assistant Lloyd Pierce was hired on May 11 to replace Mike Budenholzer, now the Bucks coach.

Schlenk might use his first pick to select a forward-center to pair with 2017-18 rookie John Collins. Among players who could be available are Duke’s Marvin Bagley III , Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson and Mo Bamba of Texas.

Guards Luka Doncic of Slovenia, Trae Young of Oklahoma and forward Michael Porter of Missouri could be alternatives for Schlenk.

Pierce stressed defense in his first news conference in Atlanta. Schlenk said it’s important to land players with balanced offensive and defensive skills.

“Obviously when you look at the best teams in the league, the majority of the time they’re good defensive teams,” Schlenk said. “But at the end of the day, if you’re not scoring 100 points you’re probably not winning, so we’re going to look for guys that are two-way players, who can play defensively, but also we’ve got to be able to score the ball on the other end.”

Bagley qualifies as that two-way talent, but he could be drafted at the No. 2 spot by Sacramento.

“I put a lot of work into this and I think I’m the best player in the draft,” Bagley said after his draft workout in Atlanta last week. “I mean that in the most humble way possible, not to be cocky.”

Phoenix is projected to select Arizona center DeAndre Ayton with the top pick.

Jackson is an accomplished shot blocker with less polish on the offensive end. He is regarded by many to have the potential shooting skills to develop into a well-rounded NBA big man.

With point guard Dennis Schroder‘s future in Atlanta uncertain, the Hawks can look for talent at any position. Their wealth of picks could make it easier to take a chance on Doncic, who has the skills to play multiple positions even though his ability to create space in the NBA has been questioned by some critics.

“I’ve maintained all along, and I honestly believe this, we’re going to take the best player,” Schlenk said. “We’re in a situation where we’re looking to add the most talent we can, and we’re going to get a good player at the third pick.”

The No. 3 spot is the Hawks’ highest since 2007, when they selected Al Horford at No. 3.

Atlanta also has the No. 19 and No. 30 picks in the first round and No. 34 early in the second round. Those selections give Schlenk a wealth of options, including a deal for a higher pick next year.

Schlenk said he has considered if the possibility to “trade back to collect more assets would be advantageous.”

 

Nate Robinson says Larry Brown made him cry then told the whole Knicks team about it

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In 2013, Kurt Helin declared Nate Robinson “The people’s champion.”

The 5-foot-9 guard won a record three dunk contests. He played fearlessly, especially as a scorer. He gambled defensively. He played hard and with emotion. He had an outsized personality, talking smack and serving as team jokester.

But there was more beneath the surface during his 11-year NBA career with the Knicks, Celtics, Thunder, Warriors, Bulls, Nuggets, Clippers and Pelicans.

Mirin Fader of Bleacher Report:

While in therapy, Robinson questioned himself and God. He wondered if he should have pursued football instead. He opened up about struggles few knew about, like the time, he said, Brown allegedly referred to him daily as “the little shit.” On another occasion, Robinson came into Brown’s office, crying, telling his coach to stop demeaning him. Ten minutes later, in front of the team, Brown called Robinson “the little shit” again and shared that he had cried.

(When asked about the nature of these interactions, Brown said: “I don’t have any recollection. I don’t, I don’t know … I don’t know what I called him, to be honest with you. If I did that, shame on me. I would feel terrible about that. That’s not who I am, but I don’t want to dispute Nate.”)

“The NBA gave me my depression,” Robinson says. “I’ve never been a depressed person in my life.”

Robinson, who’s 34 and two seasons removed from the NBA, is trying to return to the league. It’s unlikely he makes it. Small guards like him are so reliant on athleticism, and when it slips, they usually fall fast and don’t come back.

But I hope he finds sharing his experience cathartic.

DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Love and Kelly Oubre have opened up about their mentalhealth struggles and been embraced for it. Robinson should be, too.

This anecdote also speaks to how Larry Brown, once a great coach, is too old-fashioned in his thinking. At least he seems to realize that about this episode (maybe).